Chances are… Of lotteries and global destruction

(Photo by Garry Knight)

(Photo by Garry Knight)

A caller on last week’s Vox Pop show on WAMC worried about Nibiru. That’s the planet supposedly on a collision course with Earth. Like other wacky conspiracies making the rounds, this one insists that scientists and officials are keeping it secret.

Aside from the fact that astronomers are blabbermouths who wouldn’t know how to keep a juicy secret for three minutes, a quick way to dispense with such fearful notions merely requires a little math: What are the chances of an unknown planet crashing into us during our lifetime?

When applied correctly, statistics can deliver hard-drives-full of valuable revelations. Although not a particularly difficult subject, statistics is a discipline notorious for being misused either deliberately or through ineptitude. Then all sorts of mischief bubbles up.

For example, 39 percent of all auto accidents involve alcohol. This means that in 61 percent of accidents, the drivers were not drunk. So, logically, shouldn’t we first go after the people who cause most of the carnage, and get all those sober drivers off the road?

In reality, though they capture most of the headlines, accidents are responsible for only four percent of all US deaths. Compared with heart disease (31 percent of deaths) and cancer (23 percent), all else is relatively minor. The odds are 25-to-1 that you won’t ever die in any kind of accident.

Even after a typical lifetime of driving 15,000 miles a year for 50 years, your risk of eventually dying in a crash is just one in 88. Mile for mile, motorcycles are 18 times deadlier than cars, and bicycles are up there, too. In reality, all travel entails some risk. The exact peril depends on how far you roam. In an entire lifetime, the average American walks 65,000 miles and rides about a million miles. This is unique to our time.

Because of the low understanding of odds and danger, some fear that their cruise ship might sink, or worry about radiation from nuclear power plants or Earth colliding with an asteroid, though none carry an actual risk worth a second thought. Paradoxically, many of these same arithmophobic worriers drive fast in areas rife with deer, neglect colonoscopies, spend money on lottery tickets or let themselves get 20 percent overweight.

The lottery. Let me share a new calculation: The New York Lotto, a typical pick-six game, has winning odds of one in 45,057,474. That’s about half the interval between global cataclysms – meaning that Earth suffered widespread destruction 65 million, 200 million, 251 million, 364 million and 439 million years ago: roughly 90 million years between sudden major extinctions. So this year there’s only half the chance of Earth getting clobbered than of you winning the lottery.

Want more reassurance? There are 31,500,000 seconds in a year. Say it takes me one second to go “ah-choo” when I sneeze, and say I’ll sneeze just once in 2017. You win a big prize if you guess the correct second. Wherever you are, you must snap your finger during my sole 2017 “ah-choo.” Snap it a second early and you lose. Would you try it? I don’t think so. Yet you’d have 50 percent better odds of picking the precise sneeze moment than of winning the Lotto.

Don’t know how I got started on this. I guess the point is: Don’t worry.


Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at

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